Commentary: The Purpose And Price Of Disruptive Change

On leadership, Africa has had a chequered history. While some see only the dark spots, others see multi colours of the good, the bad and the ugly. In some ways, part of our future is in our past. When one reads about the plans, values, passion, and accomplishments of some of Africa’s liberation/independence leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Nnamdi Azikiwe, etcetera, one has cause to smile as an African.

Back home, I am inspired by the examples of Aminu Kano, M.I. Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, etcetera in our first republic. We can fill up hundreds of pages as eulogy to our gallant and patriotic past heroes and heroines, including those distinguished civil servants, captains of industry, journalists, civil society activists, musicians, etcetera who worked hard and some even paid the ultimate price to see Nigeria a better place.

In our more recent history, especially since 1999, we have seen occasional glitters of hope here and there but despair deepens.  Around the continent, there is a mixture of bright and gloomy stories. “Africa Rising” was not just a fluke. The Dark Continent remains potentially the land of opportunities and could indeed be the global economic driver of the 22nd century.

But the time to lay the foundation is now. The second scramble for Africa is raging, with the Chinese on the loose.  Africa indeed needs new orchestra teams and new songs. It needs to run at the speed of a thousand kilometres an hour to seize back its future and shape its narrative.

Indeed, Africa needs a new liberation movement. The first struggle was liberation from the colonial masters. The second will be liberation from rentier politics and politicians. No doubt, there is almost a sense of nostalgia, recalling the mission and accomplishments of our founding fathers, especially as we contemplate the world without oil in Nigeria.  Much of the existing social order is founded on competition for, and distribution of, rents.

Oil and the easy money that came with it destroyed the social fabric and the elite created new institutions and political structures to maximize their gains. As the noose tightened globally on other rentier/criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking or internet scamming, many of the barons flocked into politics as the next easy alternative.

Politics has become big business. Appointment or election into public office is seen largely as an opportunity to “eat” rather than a call to selfless service. There is an army of rich, otherwise known as “big men”, who have never worked or done any productive work in their life and believe that it is their right to expect something for nothing.

The tiny less than one percent elite have a stranglehold on the public purse, sprinkling occasional crumbs to the citizens as ‘dividends of democracy’. The citizens themselves, either out of helplessness or acquiescence, join the party, expecting the politicians to dole out pittance out of public treasury as charity.

The citizens actually clap for such phantom “charity”. Politicians who refuse to do so are deemed as “stingy” or “wicked”, and the circus goes on. With a rentier system, a culture of freebies emerged, and most people don’t expect to pay for anything, including taxes, electricity, water, petrol, etcetera.

A classic feature of the political environment is that corruption has become part of the “culture”, with little incentive for honesty. Honesty is scorned as wickedness, foolishness or mere pretense, and those who dare to be different have a steep price to pay.

Oil is on its way out, but dismantling the decades-old debilitating institutions and politics around it won’t be a tea party. Nigeria is now at a fiscal cliff with a crunching solvency challenge. Youth unemployment, insecurity, poverty, inflation, etcetera threaten the social fabric.

In Nigeria, we remember what happened to Murtala Muhammed, and the history books are replete with hundreds of examples of the inherent risks. At a personal level, undertaking the banking revolution in Nigeria came with 19 written threats to me and my family, including physical attacks.  Disrupting the existing social order is dangerous. Beneficiaries of the current order are powerful enough to organize and viciously fight back to protect their privileges.

On the contrary, the masses who are the ultimate beneficiaries are not organized enough to act as a bulwark against the special interests. As things stand currently, we are standing between the rock and the hard place. With the objective to retain power within the context of short electoral cycles, politicians are afraid to undertake the necessary disruptive changes to guarantee long term safety and prosperity for all. On the other hand, the existing trends are totally unsustainable and the system is living on borrowed times. Everyone is sleepwalking to the hard place, and praying that somehow a miracle will happen along the way.

So, who is ready to put his head on the line to lead such productive but dangerous disruptions? Admittedly, fixing politics requires talent and skills. But these won’t be enough. It won’t happen by lone wolves working in silos. It requires new developmental organizations – teams of believers, driven by defined ideology, purpose and character. God bless Nigeria!

WRITTEN BY PROF. CHUKWUMA SOLUDO

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